°py 1 THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE
NATHANIEL W. STEPHENSON
Eeprinted from the Annual Report of the American Historical Association
for 1913, Volume I, pages 101-109
THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE
NATHANIEL W. STEPHENSON
Reprinted from the Annual Report of the American Historical Association
for 1913, Volume I, pages 101-109
V. THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CURRICULUM.
By NATHANIEL W. STEPHENSON,
Professor of History in the College of Charleston.
THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CURRICULUM.
By Nathaniel W. Stephenson.
The subject assigned to me is ''The pLace of history in the cur-
ricuhim," and I am given to understand that what is chiefly wanted
is a discussion of its bearing upon secondary schools. I take it there
ai-e involved two questions: Why is history in the curriculum at all?
and, assuming its place there, What work is it expected to do? In
a word, if I interpret my assignment correctly, I am to open the
case on behalf of history as a secondary study by applying to it that
touchstone which is the characteristic contemporaneous one in all
things intellectual, the merciless question, "What's the use?'" So
asks the modern world of all things; especially, so ask Americans.
What's the use, in education, of Latin, of mechanics, of history; in
a larger sphere, of morals, or art, of Christianity, of life itself?
Let us imagine the American layman — the intelligent member of
a school board, say — asking himself this question, Wiat's the use
of history in schools? Where shall he look for an authoritative
answer? Judging from my own experience, if he question rather
widely he will soon be struck by the fact that the people most likely
to have answers to the question are not agi-eed among themselves. If
you will pardon the personality, I have had some opportunity to
compare views on this point,' because in connection with an important
publishing house it has been my duty to classify and report upon
the various criticisms of presumptive authorities upon certain manu-
scripts. What has struck me above all else is the great range and
variety in the nature of the tests applied by these many-minded
critics. I will not invariably accuse them of that vigilant mentality,
so irksome to the average mind, which definitely formulates its
standards. But none the less the standards are there, all the more
insistent — as is the case with so many deep-laid things — ^because not
tested by the pitiless exposure of a logical examination.
An excellent instance of what I have in mind occurred the other
day in a criticism of a grammar-school text of State history. The
author had mentioned certain actions of the Civil War, but had con-
tented himself — wisely, it seems to me — with a note that did not
exceed mere mention. The critic in question objected with evident
feeling. Singling out one of these actions he protested : " It was
104 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.
imicli too gallant an achievement to be passed over in a footnote."
Here is a point of view that could be matched in citations from other
critics almost without number. And note how definite even though
unformulated is the assumption lying behind it. Ask the critic,
" What's the use in teaching history to the young? " and, if he is true
to himself, he will say : " It's use is to inculcate principles of conduct,
to cultivate a respect for brave and unselfish action."
I am the last person to sneer at such a point of view. If our
schools are not to inculcate courage and patriotism, I, for one, have
no use for our schools. But is the history classroom the place in
which to achieve this laudable end? Is not this chiefly an inci-
dental accomplishment, a matter of the personal influence of the
teacher's character — the one thing we appear to consider valueless
in our present system when teachers are paid so often on the same
scale as butlers, when none probably draw equal wages with a iirst-
class chauffeur. In the history classroom are there not other lessons
crying out for consideration that history alone can teach and are
not these the things that history study ought to stress? Surely all
of us here pi'esent will agree that such should be the case. History,
even for the yoimg, is a subtler and more complex affair than any,
even the most impressive, object lessons in civic virtue. ^Icrely to
point a moral is too narrow a function for this rich and stimulating
Well, what else can we discover among the various viewpoints of
our critics? One other stands conspicuous. Over and over again I
have encountered the objection that a given manuscript does not
sufficiently glorify our ancestors. History, as ancestor-worship, is
the implied standard of innumerable critics. To inculcate a reve-
rence for our own past, regardless of the question how much of that
reverence is deserved; to soothe our vanity, to afford a Ijasis for the
praise of ourselves — such, frankh', is the ignoble standard of a great
army of the worshipers of their ancestors. Surely, one need but to
mention this to do one's full duty by way of protest. "\^lio, with
the genuine impulse of historical scholarship — the mere impulse, I
say, let alone the achievement — can fail to be indignant over such an
attitude? Virgil gave us our ti-ue motto when he put into the
mouth of Aeneas, "Neither Trojan nor Tyrian shall sway me";
and Tennyson richly enlai'ged the theme when he expressed the
spirit of jiure incjuiry — that spirit, remember, which failed in the
"Palace of Art" merely l)ecause it attempted to substitute thought
for life, not because it had a wrong conception of the life of
thought — saying :
I take iiossessiou of mau's uiiiul ami deed;
I care not what the sects may brawl;
I sit as God, holdiug no form of creed,
But coutemplating all.
THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CURRICULUM. 105
Of many other standards for the criticism of historical studies in
secondary schools, I will forbear to speak. Cut there is one more
that it is not safe to pass over in silence. However, before examining
it permit me to arrange the perspective — if I may so express myself —
in which this third great fallacy should be placed. In jjarenthesis,
as it were, let me remind you of several things, common, I have no
doubt, to the experience of us all. First, is there anyone accustomed
to examme college freslmien in histoiy who does not feel that second-
ary teaching of history, take it by and large, is at present chaotic?
I should be most happy to be persuaded that my own experience is
exceptional. I fear it is not. The historical impression left in the
minds of high-school pupils is too often of the same sort as one that
lay behind a paper in an English literature examination which I
once assisted in conducting at a noted State university. The paper
informed us that in Shakespeare's "Julius Cfesar,*' Caesar was
warned to beware the ides of March, but that Ca;sar ignored the
warning, and Brutus and Cassius and '• the rest of the ides " waylaid
him and killed him.
No, we confront a double confusion, a confusion of standards in
the minds of the teachers, a confusion of impressions in the minds of
the pupils. "We have not yet come to the third great fallacy, but are
fast approaching it. It has been brought about in part — in part
only — by the disgusted reaction of many well-meaning teachers
against the crass absurdities of old-style memory drills in history.
"What has paved the way to the third fallacy is a vain confusion of
the teaching methods of high school and college. "Without entering
into subtleties upon a matter so obvious to common sense, it is enough
to remind ourselves that we were, our pupils still are, quite different
beings at 15 and 20, and that methods which worked with us at the
golden age of 15 were not the same as those which worked at the
brazen age of 20. "Unfortunately, some good people have parted
with their youth forever — alas, that it should be so — and can no lon-
ger so much as guess at Wordsworth's meaning, praising the long
happiness of " days bound each to each by natural piety." These
unfortunate people, justly indignant over the confusion in a boy's
mind of the slayers of Csesar with the ides of March, have no for-
mula for a reformation, but to impose their mental processes — the
processes not even of the brazen age, but so to speak of a still more
sophisticated one, the age of iron — upon the stubborn romanticism,
the potent idleness, of unconquered j'outh.
And now for the third great fallacy. It is the assumption that his-
tory, even in secondary schools, should be treated as a descriptive
science, as the free play of a masterful curiosity ranging, with a
.sportsman's instinct for the difficult, through the jungle of the joast.
Such is the ideal of university history, an ideal of mature minds who
106 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATIOK.
have reached a point where it is safe to eat the fruit of knowleilpe
for its own sake, who may justly say, '• We are old enough to think
of all mental activities but as tonics to our own minds ; " who may
look with equal joy upon the handling of a policy by a statesman, or
the management of a theme in a Wagner opera, or the smiling victor\'
of Utamaro over the demon of a color chord that none but he could
master. I am unable to measure my disdain for the man or woman
of mature life to whom such a conception of history, of music, of
painting, is a vain thing, who will omit it from a catalogue of the
utilities of the spirit. Such a conception is involved in that true
ideal of a liberal education so nobly phrased by Xewman in his
seventh discourse on the " Idea of a University." But what, pray,
has this to do with high schools? What connection between history
as a descriptive science and the mental aptitudes, the general capaci-
ties, of boys and girls of 14, 1.5, 16? For my own part the connec-
tion appears so slight as to be practically negligible. Unless I am
quite on the wrong track the idea of history as a descriptive science
is as false a standard for the judgment of secondary teaching as are
those other fallacies, histoi-y as sermonizing and history as ancestor
worship. The consciousness of the years between 14 and 18 is still
too plastic, too barbaric, if you will, for real results in descriptive
science. Essentially impressionistic, these years must be cultivated
through imagination upon the one hand and a discreet routine of
habit upon the otiier. Analysis, genuine science, in history at least,
is not yet. But it is in just these years that interest in history is
most likely either to be established for life or be put to rout for life.
Premature imposition of scientific methods may easily cut its throat.
A warnmg never to be forgotten is that satiric fable which is a classic
of the British medical tradition.
Said an English surgeon of a certain supremely difficult opera-
" Yes ; it is a final test of the operator. I have ventured to per-
form it only twice; both times, fortunately, with good results."
"Pooh, that is nothing," said the Frenchman, ''I have performed
it five times."
" Indeed." replied the Englishman. "A wonderful record. And
what of the patients?"
" Oh," with a jaunty shrug of the shoulders, " they all died."
Is there any doubt that the satire might be adapted to explain
the active dislike of history ac(]uired by many a youth in school?
Let us always remember that in secondary schools we are dealing
with vivid, impressionable young people, quick to re-spond to any-
thing that seems true, but having as yet slight power of analysis,
still less fondness for analysis, and that all work done in this period
is a sort of bridge linking the grammar-school age, in which analysis
THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CUBEICULUM. 107
does not exist at all, with the college age, in which some degree of
analytic faculty may always be assumed. In the secondary period
the analytic faculty is to be awakened, but awakened with great
cautiousness, got upon its feet with a patient tact, watchful lest the
shy young thing escape out of one's hand into the desert of youth's
illogical stubbornness. So, since our problem all through this diffi-
cult age is to lure youth into the paths of analytic method, it be-
hooves us to take very careful thought what use we can make of a
given study in accomplishing this end, what place it should have in
an ideal curriculum.
Hitherto my paper has been made up chiefly of objections — of
negation. Permit me now, briefly, to be positive. I speak but
tentatively — especially in view of the names that follow mine on
the program of this conference, names that justly carry such great
weight of authority— and I never, I trust, forget that history and
dogma are mutually exclusive, that even on this question of meth-
ods of instruction the dogmatic historian is a contradiction in
terms. That tribal poet who was the first historian — as well, appar-
ently, as the first pragmatist — knew what he was about when he
whispered out of the remotest past into Kipling's ear, " There are
nine and forty M'ays of composing tribal lays. And every single one
of them is right" — right, that is, if it arrives, if it delivers the
In this purely tentative spirit, then, I will venture upon two sug-
gestions, hoping thus to contribute a little toward fixing the place,
defining the function, of history in the secondary curriculum. One
of my suggestions will deal with subject matter, the other with
First, however, let us all take a momentary rcAnew of the various
historical interests present in our own minds. Do we not find that
they fall into three classes? To me, at least, this is unquestionable.
I find in my mind to-day a vivid interest in the magnificent, the
multiform drama of the warfare of man with circumstance consid-
ered merely as a true story that thrills mj' heart like a trumpet; I
find also an interest equally vivid in tracing back into the past the
causes of the present, in locating there evidence that will explain
the present; lastlj^, I find that subtlest interest of all — delight not
primarily in the results of research but in its process, what we may
call the interest of the historical sportsman, big-game shooting in
the jungle of the past's misrepresentations. It is my fixed belief
that all three interests are normal properties, genuine treasures,
of the fully rounded, mature mind. To ignore the first — as is done
by an entire school of historians, one of whose conspicuous mem-
bers in a recent work on the Ci^^l War devotes to the actual drama,
the agony and the bloody sweat just one page and a half — seems to
108 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.
me an abnormal point of N'iew. To my mind these three interests
differ, not by the times at which they cease out of our lives — for I
believe that none should ever cease — but by the times at which they
enter our lives. And if such is the case, then of course the general
character of study at the times when these interests successi\ely
appear may easily be determined.
Am I not right in thinking tlnit the purely dramatic interest
traces back to earliest childhood and forms the true touchstone by
which to try history teaching in the grammar-school period? Am
I not also right in holding that at the other extreme the third inter-
est — the zeal for research as an intellectual tonic, a force acting upon
the mature mind in the same waj" as music and painting — is a thing
practically unthinkable in all periods previous to that of the univer-
sity or, at least, the college? Surely, then, it is in the intermediate
period, the j^eriod when analysis is in the bud, when we need to en-
courage it b}' giving it an obvious function reifdily grasped by com-
mon sense, that we should take up the study of history as a conscious
search for the explanation of our present world, the oracle from
which, through due attention to its utterances, we may receive an
answer to the question, How to live.
Such, then, would be my touchstone of the subject matter of his-
tory teaching in secondary schools. I would have it continue the
interest in the human drama begun in the grammar-school period,
but carefully blend with that interest the more advanced analytic
one, the interest in the past as the clue to the labyrinth of the present.
All the data employed, both in textbooks and in classrooms, should
serve as predication of one or other of these subjects.
But it is a truism that in every study the process is as vital a
matter as the content. Here, again, I can not escape the conclusion
that a whole school of teachers and textbook writers are gravely in
eiTor. Even when they are seeking to explain the present by the
past these teachers, these writers, vitiate their attempt through an
inadequate sense of their undertaking. I refer to all those who
carry to excess the topical method of study, who reduce their picture
of the past to a series of propositions, a catalogue of illustrations,
of applications. Did time permit, it would be interesting to analyze
the textbooks of our day to show how insidiousl}' the topical method
is replacing old conventions by new ones, substituting for the old
canon of rigid propositions upon ancestor worship a new canon,
rapidly solidifying into rigidity, of propositions upon economic
effects in history; how, in both cases, understanding tends inevitably
to give way to memory ; how, in a word, new presbyter again is but
old priest writ large.
But time docs not permit. I will content myself with a final and
this time an unconditional statement. The one thing needful in
THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CUKBICULUM. 109
history teaching, the thing so often missed, but without which tliere
is no result worth while, is imagination. The process of ideal his-
torical study all up and down the scale from kindergarten to uni-
versity must be through and through imaginative. Not to catalogue
the features of the past, but to re-create the life that once informed
those features, is the true aim of history in all its phases. To ac-
quire the difficult art of calling up that life, of bodying it forth out
of the strange and ambiguous things known as human documents, is
a feat of the disciplined imagination as difficult as it is precious.
You will observe that I have dropped the word " science " and
introduced the word " art." Both the charm and the pain of history
grow out of its dual character, its miique blending of art and science.
"\Mien one assigns as its highest function the extraction imaginatively
of the fluid human facts — not the rigid physical facts — concealed in
the written word or implied in tradition, one seems to make the
historical imagination ahnost the same thing as the literary imagi-
nation, to make history preponderently artistic. Into such a delicate
subtlet}^ I may be forgiven for declining to enter in the last moment
of my allotted time.
Surely all of us, on second thought, whether we have an answer
pat or only wish we had, appreciate that the historic imagination
is not the same as the literary imagination. Let us go further and
say that in history our imaginative effort, lacking much of the free-
dom, the unscrupulousness of the literary imagination, yet resembles
this literary imagination , in having a wonderful responsiveness to
suggestion, but that in the case of history this responsiveness works
under exact control, projecting upon an imaginary screen, as it were,
not a picture of our own contriving, not impi-essionism of any sort,
but a true and accurate bodying forth of suggestions contained in
specific records. I am not sure that this is not a greater feat of
imagination — in some ways, at least — than even the strictly literary
feat. Certain I am that it is the last achievement of historical
scholarship, that unfortunately few people experience it, and that,
to the average reader of history, it is as foreign as Sophocles.
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